Given current events, Akhtiorskaya’s debut—concerning an immigrant family’s ambivalent ties to America and those who choose to stay behind in Ukraine—could not be more timely.
As the novel opens in 1993, Esther and Robert Nasmertov, once highly respected doctors in Odessa, have been settled for two years in the Russian/Ukrainian Jewish enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where their medical practices have dwindled and they struggle with their own health problems. Living with them are their chunky, sullen 10-year-old granddaughter, Frida, her mother, Marina (the Nasmertovs' daughter), who cleans houses for wealthier Jews and eventually becomes a nurse, and her low-level computer-tech husband, Levik. Absent is Esther and Robert’s son, Pasha, an up-and-coming poet. A convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, he remains in Odessa with his wife and adolescent son. When Esther is diagnosed with cancer, Marina arranges for Pasha to visit. Akhtiorskaya’s set-piece descriptions of his monthlong stay—a family beach outing; a birthday weekend in a cramped lake cabin; a literary soiree—are drawn with sharp humor, telling character sketches and sensory flamboyance. Esther, Robert and Marina want Pasha, whom they all consider helpless and hapless, to stay in America where they can take care of him. Pasha is put off by what he sees as Brighton Beach’s second-rate version of Odessa, but he enjoys Manhattan's expat literary social life. Cut to 2008. Word comes to Brooklyn that Pasha’s son is engaged. Frida, thinner but still sullenly unhappy, decides to attend the wedding and receives a less-than-enthusiastic welcome to Odessa. Divorced and remarried to a woman he met in New York, Pasha has become a literary lion based on the work he published (and Frida never bothered to read) shortly after his visit to America 15 years ago. As Akhtiorskaya showed America through Pasha’s eyes, she now offers Frida’s vision of Crimea as chaotic, decrepit, yet enticingly surreal.
Akhtiorskaya’s sideways humor allows rays of genuine emotion to filter through the social and domestic satire.